“You should have been here election night.”
From the second-floor rail, the young woman looks down on the atrium lounge, empty this cold winter day, yet filled with natural light. She describes the hubbub of Nov. 8—students crowding into the Steinman College Center to watch voting results on a large screen, the place buzzing with the excitement of a campaign headquarters until the shock sets in of realizing the polls had been wrong.
Eleven presidential elections over four decades have drawn F&M students to the Steinman College Center, as have myriad meetings and meals, routine errands and personal encounters. “Atriating,” students once called it. Today, as you read this, the spring semester is chugging at full steam and the “College living room” burbles with life. Young men and women—and a mix of faculty, staff and visitors—flow in and out, carried on individual or collective missions as varied as this year’s student body.
When the College Center first opened, in late May 1976, Keith Spalding was president of Franklin & Marshall and Gerald Ford the 38th U.S. president. The Watergate cover-up, pardon of Richard Nixon, and end of the Vietnam War were still unhealed wounds to the national conscience.
But 1976 was also the year Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak formed Apple Computer, the VHS videocassette recorder was introduced, and Olympian Nadia Comaneci scored perfect 10s. Concorde supersonic flights cut trans-Atlantic travel to just over three hours, Viking 1 and Viking 2 landed on Mars, America celebrated its 200th birthday, and Jimmy Carter won the presidency.
In lower Manhattan, the newly finished twin towers of the World Trade Center marked a breathtaking realization of Minoru Yamasaki’s architectural vision and imagination. About 50,000 people went to work each day in the two buildings. At the same time, a radically different building, designed by the same architect, was about to transform the F&M campus.
A Star is Born, 1963
Landing an architect of Yamasaki’s international acclaim and star power to design the College Center had been quite a coup for F&M. In January 1963, he’d appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, fresh from winning the World Trade Center commission and scoring a popular triumph with his U.S. Science Pavilion at the 1962 Seattle Exposition. It “cast a spell” on visitors by using “reflecting pools, stage-set lighting, delicate bridges, six buildings decorated with Gothic tracery.” It was, the writer declared, “a declaration of independence from the machine-made monotony of so much of modern architecture.”
Yamasaki was pushing past the limits of “less is more” modernism by introducing classical elements, such as Roman, Muslim and Gothic arches. Although he praised German-American architect Mies van der Rohe, he felt the glass box “had deteriorated into a cliché” in less-skilled hands. In his autobiography, “A Life in Architecture,” he spoke out against “the dogma of rectangles,” modular design, and “the plastering of whole blocks of midtown New York with regimented patterns of glass and porcelain-enamel rectangles.”
Instead, Yamasaki sought to restore “delight, serenity and surprise.” The first delight, for F&M, came when he said “yes.”
What made it happen? Or, rather, who?
At the time F&M commissioned Minoru Yamasaki to design the College Center, Robert Sarnoff was CEO of Radio Corporation of America, which included NBC radio and television. He also happened to chair F&M’s Board of Trustees.
So the easy explanation of how F&M landed Yamasaki might go like this—the high-profile media mogul, with his sophisticated New York worldview, yet himself the son of a Russian immigrant, uses his power, prestige, and connections to snare the star architect, the son of Japanese immigrants, and charm him into bringing big-time, world-class architecture to a small college amid the farmlands of Pennsylvania.
But this begs a question. Why was Robert Sarnoff helping F&M in the first place? His alma mater was Harvard and his law school Columbia.
On New Holland Avenue in Lancaster, where RCA had once built military electronics for the Navy, thousands of people were busily building America’s latest color TV tubes and television sets. According to Bruce Holran, F&M’s director of public relations from 1968 to 1986, “it was Elmer Bobst [a trustee from 1951 to 1978] who persuaded Robert Sarnoff to get involved with the College,” as a way of giving back to the community where RCA had such an important research and manufacturing center.
Sarnoff was invited to be the Commencement speaker in 1959 and awarded an honorary doctorate. In 1960, he joined Bobst on the Board of Trustees.
Getting It Done, 1963-76
The need for a student union to provide a social center for the College, instead of relying primarily on fraternity houses, had long been acknowledged. An ad hoc committee on student life was already thinking beyond a strictly student union. “It should be planned in such a way as to attract not only students, but members of the faculty, so that it becomes a facility used by all members of the College community.” In other words, a college center.
Anticipating the 1969 start of coeducation at F&M by several years, the planning committee chaired by O.W. Lacy, dean of students, made it known that “the committee definitely wishes female opinion concerning the center facilities.”
In June 1968, Sarnoff told the F&M trustees that he wanted Minoru Yamasaki as the architect. That September, Yamasaki’s firm accepted the commission. Despite the dedication of F&M’s John Synodinos, who was project director in charge of moving the design, construction and financing forward, delays seemed inevitable. In October 1969, Yamasaki, dissatisfied with his firm’s first design, threw his first plans “out the window,” as one surprised observer put it. But in a confident note written to Sarnoff, Spalding said, “He is indeed a perfectionist. I am impressed.”
By April 1970, the Lacy committee recommended that the center include a “bookstore, mail room, dining areas, student offices, multi-purpose meeting rooms, game areas, music practice and listening rooms, lounges and conference rooms.” That summer, design firm Ford & Earl, which had a good working relationship with Yamasaki, was commissioned for the building’s interior.
Wohlsen Construction erected the building, and the College Center officially opened on May 29, 1976. The College Reporter noted that the building didn’t blend in with others on campus and was sharply critical of everything but the bookstore.
Sarnoff resigned as chair of the Trustees in 1971 and left the Board in 1975. He had one last gift for the center: the metal sculpture “Three Lines Horizontal,” whose bright blades still move in the wind by the College Avenue entrance.
In 1978 the College Center got “Steinman” for a first name, in recognition of two gifts of $250,000 each from the James Hale Steinman and John Frederick Steinman foundations.
Yamasaki lived 10 more years, his fame resting on his increasing mastery of the new formalism style, most conspicuously evident in the Gothic arches, thin windows, and soaring aluminum-clad verticals of the World Trade Center. Standing at the base of a Twin Tower was like looking at a line of figures with their arms stretching heavenward. Mercifully, Yamasaki was spared witnessing the horrible end to his greatest achievement.
If It’s Outstanding, It Stands Out
Though Yamasaki designed many buildings using variations of the same elements—columns, arches, colonnades, skylights, narrow vertical windows—you’ll find only a few characteristic gestures in the College Center.
Look at the corners. As though to find relief from the severity of the square or rectangular, Yamasaki often trimmed them as he did in the Twin Towers—and the College Center. But the verticals are expressed by wide columns of tinted bay windows and even wider bay entrances, their angles a nod to the building’s corners. The glass features achieve greater prominence with the absence of exterior ornamentation, which Yamasaki often had applied to his earlier designs.
The choice of brick color is puzzling. On a campus of ubiquitous red brick, why an earth-tone palette of orangish-brown framing dark brown windows? Why not, let’s say, a more companionable gray limestone? Time for architects and artists to weigh in.
Haven or Hive?
Older alumni will spot major changes since the opening. The Roschel Performing Arts Center adjoins the northeast side of the building. The bookstore space is now part of the Phillips Museum of Art. And on two sides of the building, mature cherry trees soften its lines. As one administrator lucky enough to have an office with a floor-to-ceiling window put it, “It’s like working in an arboretum.”
And a beehive. This is where students pick up mail, meet friends for lunch, hold club meetings, work on The College Reporter, publish the yearbook, perform DJ gigs at WFNM, and coordinate fraternity and sorority life. Spaces adjust to accommodate events, which have included a cappella groups, salsa nights, Holocaust readings, art openings, major televised events, conferences—even, in 1978, a talk on foreign policy in the Booth Ferris Room by former president Gerald Ford.
The heart of the hive is still the atrium with its skylight, showing the architect’s original intent to “surprise” and “delight.” Director of Student Engagement and Leadership Lucy Gillichbauer calls the atrium the “central hub of campus.”
In the 1960s, never anticipating the human hand would someday be attached to a cacophonous digital universe, Minoru Yamasaki told The New York Times, “Man needs a serene architectural background to save his sanity in today’s world.”
The Lacy committee had a more down-to-earth vision for the Steinman College Center. The minutes from a 1967 meeting read, “The committee must think in terms of the usefulness of the facilities it plans for the Center in 40 years.”
Well done, committee. Well done.
"The use of technology does not prevent us at all from using the graceful forms of the Roman, Moslem, or Gothic arches. They are much more efficient and effective in concrete and steel than in stone."